August 28, 2013
Choices for the South Caucasus
By DENIS CORBOY, WILLIAM COURTNEY, RICHARD KAUZLARICH and KENNETH YALOWITZ
Five years after the Russian-Georgian war captured world attention, the South Caucasus — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia — continues to face huge challenges. The region’s geopolitical importance is ebbing as global energy production expands and NATO winds down in Afghanistan. The three countries also face major security risks, unmet popular expectations and governance failures. For the South Caucasus, this is a time for choices.
Security issues plague the South Caucasus. Russia’s military occupies two “independent” enclaves in Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — and some contiguous land. A two-decade military standoff persists around Nagorno-Karabakh, populated by ethnic Armenians but lying within Azerbaijan. Russia plays both sides, maintaining a military base in Armenia, equipping its forces and extending a security treaty, but also selling Azerbaijan billions of dollars in arms. Turkey exacerbates insecurity by sealing its border with Armenia, while Iran supports Armenia.
Russia is pressuring its neighbors to join the Eurasian Economic Community. Moscow worries, with reason, that the South Caucasus countries prefer to align with the European Union. Even though Armenia is an observer in the Eurasian group, it does not seem eager to join. Moscow’s brief trade skirmish with Ukraine could presage tougher stances with other neighbors.
The three countries also have major internal issues, highlighted in presidential elections this year.
Last February in Armenia, the incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan, won a flawed election. Ahead of the vote, two prominent candidates withdrew. A third candidate went on a hunger strike, and a fourth was shot but recovered. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that voter turnout in many rural areas, Sargsyan’s base, were “implausibly high.” Political strains and stasis impede reforms in a country weakened by blocked borders, emigration and oligarch ties with officialdom.
In Azerbaijan, the potential for political upheaval is increasing amid massive corruption, grossly unequal distribution of wealth and dictatorship. Public protests in 2011 scared the ruling elite. President Ilham Aliyev tightened his grip by arresting journalists and bloggers. He also is blocking the return to Azerbaijan of Rustam Ibragimbekov, an opposition leader selected by a coalition to oppose him in the October elections.
Last year, Georgia enjoyed its first-ever peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. An opposition coalition led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili won a parliamentary election against an entrenched party led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. The new government, citing public pressure, has indicted former top officials for crimes allegedly committed in office. This has raised concerns about political justice. Support for the government is ebbing as economic conditions fail to improve.
All these elections may not be good news for Nagorno-Karabakh. Polarized politics in Armenia, and the likely retention in Azerbaijan of an autocrat whose legitimacy is declining, will impede compromises to reach a peace settlement.
While retaining Georgia’s Western orientation, Ivanishvili has lessened tensions with Russia. Moscow is lifting import bans on Georgian wine, agricultural produce and bottled water, but profound differences on Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain. Georgia should focus on bolstering democracy, improving its economy and building a defensive military.
All three countries are at decisive moments with the European Union. The Eastern Partnership can help anchor their future in an expanded European structure. This November in Vilnius, the European Union will likely sign a free trade agreement and other accords with Armenia and Georgia. Azerbaijan has a distance to travel but may sign a visa agreement. The E.U. is right to offer more cooperation and political support in return for more reforms.
The West must speak out on behalf of those denied freedom, especially in Azerbaijan. With every flawed election that is allowed to pass, every uncontested arrest of an opposition figure and every usurpation of wealth, those who stand for freedom become more impatient with Western dithering. A worrisome sign in Azerbaijan is rising anti-American sentiment among youths and intellectuals.
Second, the European Union must take greater advantage of an historic opportunity in the South Caucasus. The E.U.’s democratic standards and wealth are appealing beacons. Closer E.U. ties will bring more freedom of maneuver in dealing with powerful neighbors.
Third, Western support for the independence of South Caucasian countries remains essential.
It is time for the South Caucasians to make up their minds about their future. If they want closer cooperation with the West, they must pursue reforms for transparent governance and wider economic opportunity. As the countries grapple with their choices, the West must keep faith with those advocating reforms and freedom.
Denis Corboy served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Richard Kauzlarich served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kenneth Yalowitz was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.